For a freshman at a military college, the first few weeks are somewhat fuzzy. They run through my mind like a blur of yelling, screaming, physical exhaustion, and mental anguish. If I had to describe those initial weeks of training, they were like being plunged into a bucket of cold water. Just like the cold water, it was a shock to my system as I jumped head first into a world that was completely foreign to me. In light of that, I have deemed the memories that are clear to be of some significance. One such memory involved one of my fellow recruits. He was overweight and as a result struggling physically with the demands of the training we were involved in. His struggles also made him a target of the cadre who were training us. After a particularly difficult moment, one upperclassman got right in his face and in a sneering and demanding tone said, “Why are you here?” His response rings clear in my mind. Without flinching he said, “Because my parents told me I would never make it.” I felt my heart sink in that moment. His honest response conveyed all the sincerity of the reasoning in his mind. It also showed the faultiness of his motivation to succeed in what lay before us. Even in my late teens I knew that would never sustain him. I was right and he dropped out and left shortly thereafter.
My point in telling that story is that the question asked of my classmate that day rings true for all Christians as well when it comes to our attendance and participation in church. Why are we there? What is the real motivation for our participation and involvement in Church? I have begun to fear that many could not answer this question and even more have not even considered asking it. It used to be more common for churches to be filled with social pew sitters. Church attendance in much of the U.S. was a way of life and just about everyone attended at least sporadically. However, in these days the atmosphere of the church has been changing. You need look no further than the average age of church attendees. Younger generations have begun to question why Church attendance is necessary or important. The unfortunate result of this is that sometimes we don’t have a good answer for the sincere question of “Why are we here?” As a result churches are dying out at an alarming rate either due to the natural deaths of their members or the leaving of younger generations.
Some have viewed the questioning nature of younger non-church attendees as a threat to the very nature of the church. However, I would suggest that it is only a threat if we cannot answer it. In fact this questioning affords us the opportunity to ask ourselves the very same question. The answer as with all good answers lies in Scripture. Colossians 3:16 offers us some reasons. It reads, “Let the Word of God dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing in grace with your hearts to the Lord.” Notice that the focus of worship both communal and in the quietness of our own devotions is to be the Word of God. The words Paul uses here are striking. He says the Word of God is to “dwell” in you. That means it lives in you and becomes a defining part of who you are. It is to be a central focus in your life. Not only is the Word of God supposed to “live with us”. It is supposed to do it “richly”. I can’t help but think of a married couple. Some married couples have become little more than roommates. They sit quietly together at the Breakfast table and find little left to say to one another. In contrast others who are investing in their marriage treasure their time with their spouse. The same breakfast table is a wonderful sweet place of love and fellowship. They are living “richly”. The Word of God first needs to live with you, making itself a part of every aspect of your days, but it must do so “richly”. Some of the first verses I ever memorized were Psalm 119: 9-11. Verse ten declares, “With my whole heart have I sought thee: O let me not wander from thy commandments”. Church should be nothing more than a gathering of those who are attempting to seek God with their whole heart and doing it richly. The focus of a good church must be the Word of God and the reason for attending is so that the Word of God might continue to “dwell richly”.
Another part of Colossians 3:16 that must be noted is the phrase “admonishing one another”. Another purpose for attending church is so that we may encourage one another. Notice that the focus is not on self, the focus is on others. All to often our reasons for coming to church are so that our needs can be met, so that I can be encouraged and strengthen and so that the church can meet MY needs. As a result we are seldom satisfied and many descend into despair, falling apart at what they feel is the slightest neglect or oversight by others. How many churches have been ripped apart by petty squabbles? How many parishioners have left in a huff of anger over things of minimal consequence? Unfortunately in my short life, I have witnessed such events and have come to believe that they most often occur because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what church is about. When we approach church with questions like, “what programs do they have for me?” or “what ways can I benefit from attending here?” we are approaching church from a purely selfish outlook. The unfortunate part is that we will never be satisfied. We will never be satisfied because that is not what church is about. Many have left a church with a feeling that their needs were not being met only to attend other churches and repeat the same pattern all over again. At some point it behooves us to ask the oh so difficult question of whether the problem lies with multiple churches or within our own hearts. John F. Kennedy once said in a famous speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Having your needs met will never sustain your church attendance. Instead of asking what the church can do for us, we should be asking what we can do for the church. I believe this change in perspective and attitude will offer an incredibly altered appreciation for gathering together with fellow believers. Whenever our motivation is to see what we can give rather than what we can receive we will likely find ourselves much more satisfied. After all, look at the model of the early church. Their focus was first on worship and second on helping each other. That is why James wrote in James 1:27, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” The truest expression of what we believe is found in service to others. I know one man of God who once said that he makes it his goal to encourage at least one person each time he comes to church. I for one applaud his resolve and recognize the need for such goals in my own life.
The question “Why am I here?” is one that we should ask often of ourselves. If we do not, we will either find ourselves developing a body of pew fillers whose ears are seemingly plugged or we will find ourselves torn apart by our own selfishness and tearing the church apart as a result. I recognize that looking closely at what lies in your heart is not an easy thing. It is often painful on many levels, but the rewards are beyond measure. Imagine if the world was full of churches devoted to the teaching of God’s Word and where each person present was devoted to the encouraging of others. The good news is that someday we will have that as we shed this sinful earth and worship at our Father’s feet. Until then, let’s make it happen as best we can here and now.